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Texas Education Official Forced to Resign Over Evolution

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Texas Education Official Forced to Resign Over Evolution
Author(s): 
Glenn Branch
NCSE Deputy Director
Volume: 
28
Issue: 
1
Year: 
2008
Date: 
January–February
Page(s): 
4–7
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.

Chris Comer, the director of science curriculum for the Texas Education Agency, was forced to resign after forwarding a short e-mail message announcing a presentation in Austin by Barbara Forrest. The Austin American-Statesman (2007 Nov 29) reported, "Comer sent the e-mail to several individuals and a few online communities, saying, 'FYI.'" Less than two hours later, Lizzette Reynolds, the TEA's senior adviser on statewide initiatives, complained to Comer's supervisors, writing, "This is highly inappropriate ... I believe this is an offense that calls for termination or, at the very least, reassignment of responsibilities ... it assumes this is a subject that the agency supports."

The e-mail message that Comer forwarded, which was originally sent by NCSE, announced a talk by Barbara Forrest on the history of the "intelligent design" movement and her expert testimony in Kitzmiller v Dover, in which teaching "intelligent design" in the public schools was ruled to be unconstitutional. Forrest is a professor of philosophy at Southeastern Louisiana University and a member of NCSE's board of directors; she also is the coauthor (with Paul R Gross) of Creationism's Trojan Horse (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

The e-mail was then cited in a memorandum recommending Comer's termination, the American-Statesman noted:"They said forwarding the e-mail not only violated a directive for her not to communicate in writing or otherwise with anyone outside the agency regarding an upcoming science curriculum review, [but] 'it directly conflicts with her responsibilities as the Director of Science.' The memo adds, 'Ms Comer's e-mail implies endorsement of the speaker and implies that TEA endorses the speaker's position on a subject on which the agency must remain neutral.'" Other reasons for recommending her termination were listed in addition.

But Comer told the newspaper that she thought that the longstanding political controversy over evolution education in Texas was the main cause of her termination: "None of the other reasons they gave are, in and of themselves, firing offenses," she said. NCSE's executive director Eugenie C Scott suggested that Comer's termination seemed to be a warning to TEA employees. "This just underscores the politicization of science education in Texas," Scott said. "In most states, the department of education takes a leadership role in fostering sound science education. Apparently TEA employees are supposed to be kept in the closet and only let out to do the bidding of the board."

Kathy Miller of the Texas Freedom Network, which advances a mainstream agenda of religious freedom and individual liberties to counter the religious right, also expressed her concern. "It's important to know whether politics and ideology are standing in the way of Texas kids getting a 21st century science education," Miller told the American-Statesman. Alluding to previous battles over the place of evolution in Texas science standards and textbooks, she added, "We've already seen a faction of the State Board of Education try to politicize and censor what our schoolchildren learn. It would be even more alarming if the same thing is now happening inside TEA itself."

The news soon attracted further attention and comment. First to decry Comer's termination was Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which promptly called on the TEA to rehire Comer in a press release dated November 28, 2007. AU's executive director, the Reverend Barry W Lynn, remarked, "It's a sad day when a science expert can lose her job merely for recommending that people hear a speaker defend sound science ... Officials in Texas seem intent on elevating fundamentalist dogma over academic excellence and common sense."

Then, in a report dated November 29, 2007 (available online at http://www.texscience.org/reviews/tea-science-director-resigns.htm), Steven Schafersman of Texas Citizens for Science contended that the real reason that Comer was forced to resign was her defense of the integrity of science education during her long tenure at TEA. Describing Comer as a martyr of science, he added, "But she will not be a victim," predicting that scientists and science teachers in Texas will be "outraged by her treatment by a state agency that is now publicly and officially forgoing accurate and reliable science to serve the ideological and religious biases of a small minority of state public education officials."

Barbara Forrest herself was aghast at the news, telling NCSE, "In my talk, I simply told the truth — about the history of the 'intelligent design' movement, about the complete rejection of its claims by the scientific community, and about the Kitzmiller trial and my involvement in it. Maybe the TEA can't afford to take a position on what constitutes good science education — maybe it must remain neutral on whether or not to lie to students about evolution — but if so, that's just sad."

Bringing the issue to national attention was The New York Times. Ralph Blumenthal reported (2007 Dec 3):

After 27 years as a science teacher and 9 years as the Texas Education Agency's director of science, Christine Castillo Comer said she did not think she had to remain "neutral" about teaching the theory of evolution. But now Ms Comer, 56, of Austin, is out of a job, after forwarding an e-mail message on a talk about evolution and creationism — "a subject on which the agency must remain neutral," according to a dismissal letter last month that accused her of various instances of "misconduct and insubordination" and of siding against creationism and the doctrine that life is the product of "intelligent design".

"I don't see how I took a position by FYI-ing on a lecture like I FYI on global warming or stem-cell research," Comer told Blumenthal. "I send around all kinds of stuff, and I'm not accused of endorsing it." The article added, "But she said that as a career science educator, 'I'm for good science,' and that when it came to teaching evolution, 'I don't think it's any stretch of the imagination where I stand.'"

The following day, the Times expressed concern about Comer's termination on its editorial page, and in Texas, too, newspaper editorials were critical of the TEA. Additionally, the American Institute for Biological Sciences issued a press release on December 6, 2007, expressing outrage at the fact, expressed in the memorandum recommending Comer's termination, that "the TEA requires, as agency policy, neutrality when talking about evolution and creationism." "When it comes to science education, we absolutely cannot remain neutral on evolution. Evolution is the unifying principle of modern biology," asserted Douglas J Futuyma, president of the American Institute of Biological Sciences and Distinguished Professor of Ecology and Evolution at Stony Brook University. "Within biological science, the reality of evolution is not controversial."

And Barbara Forrest herself released a statement through NCSE on December 5, 2007, deploring the situation.

In forcing Chris Comer to resign as Texas Director of Science, the Texas Education Agency has confirmed in a most public, unfortunate way the central point of my Austin presentation, "Inside Creationism's Trojan Horse", the mere announcement of which TEA used as an excuse to terminate her: the "intelligent design" (ID) creationist movement is about politics, religion, and power. ...If anyone had any doubts about how mean-spirited ID politics is, this episode should erase them. ... For the last nine years at the TEA, after twenty-seven years as a science teacher, ... Comer was doing her part, and she got fired for doing it.

The coverage continued, with details emerging about what it was like to work at the TEA. "We were actually told in a meeting in September that if creationism is the party line, we have to abide by it," Comer told the Austin American-Statesman (2007 Dec 6). Over the past year, she related, the TEA began increasingly to scrutinize and constrain the activities of its employees in the curriculum department: "We couldn't go anywhere. We couldn't speak," she said. "They just started wanting everything to be channeled." According to the newspaper, Comer maintained "that her ouster was political and that she felt persecuted for having supported the teaching of evolution in Texas classrooms." A spokesperson for the TEA was quoted by the American-Statesman as responding, "Obviously, there was a concern about the forwarding of that e-mail ... that she was supporting that particular speaker and [how] that could be construed ... as taking a position that could be misinterpreted by some people," and as contending that Comer evinced a lack of professionalism in other ways.

Comer then appeared on NPR's "Science Friday" on December 7, 2007, relating her story to the show's host, Ira Flatow. After receiving the e-mail announcing Forrest's talk, she said, "you know, I had a half minute and I said, gee, this is really interesting. And then, I looked up the credential on my computer, I Googled Barbara Forrest and I said, oh my goodness, this is quite a credential[ed] speaker. And then I thought to myself — you know, I'm telling my biology teachers almost on a weekly basis, teach the curriculum, teach the evolution curriculum because it's part of the state-mandated curriculum. And now, I should be — you know, I should be walking the talk here, and I — there's nothing wrong with this e-mail, of course."

Comer told Flatow that there were previous indications that the TEA was discouraging its employees from taking a stand on evolution. At a meeting during which employees were told that they must be careful about what they say and do, Comer recounted, she mentioned the topic of creationism:" And she said, I'm so glad you brought that up ... because it's important for us to realize that if the company line is that we endorse creationism, then that's what we have to say. I was shocked. I said, my goodness, even the president's ... own science adviser, was not held to that standard. And she said, well, I'm just telling you." Comer was apparently referring to John H Marburger III, Director of the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy, who told The New York Times (2005 Aug 3), "Evolution is the cornerstone of modern biology," adding, "intelligent design is not a scientific concept."

The TEA's commissioner Robert Scott was interviewed by the Dallas Morning News (2007 Dec 9). He denied that Comer was forced to resign just for forwarding the e-mail announcing Forrest's talk, alluding to "other factors" that he was not able to discuss. Asked, "Was her advocacy of evolution over creationism an element in her dismissal?" he replied, "She wasn't advocating for evolution. But she may have given the impression that ...we were taking a position as an agency — not as an individual but as an agency — on a matter." "Why shouldn't the agency advocate the science of evolution? Texas students are required to study it," the reporter asked. Scott replied, "You can be in favor of a science without bashing people's faith, too. I don't know all the facts, but I think that may be the real issue here." He did not explain how Comer's behavior was supposed to constitute faith-bashing.

While on "Science Friday," Comer thanked her supporters, saying, "Science educators and rational minds have really gone to bat and have written letters, made e-mails, and sent phone messages. It's really been an incredible response." More was to come.

The Society for the Study of Evolution released a statement (available on-line at http://www.evolutionsociety.org/download/ComerLtr_RP_JS_DW.pdf) reading, in part:

Professional ethics demands that one not "remain neutral" when science is deliberately misrepresented by creationists. Chris Comer thus acted responsibly and professionally in forwarding the announcement about an educational lecture regarding "Intelligent Design" creationism. In contrast, the administrators who called for her termination and who forced her resignation acted irresponsibly and in direct opposition to the professional standards expected of those who oversee science education. Their comments, quoted above, make it clear that they have sacrificed not only a dedicated public servant but also the facts and the very nature of science to partisan political ideology. It is a sad day for Texas when TEA administrators resort to Stalinist-style purging to suppress the truth about the bankruptcy of arguments.

Similarly, as the Austin American-Statesman (2007 Dec 11) reported, "More than 100 biology faculty members from universities across Texas signed a letter sent Monday to state Education Commissioner Robert Scott saying Texas Education Agency employees should not have to remain neutral on evolution." Daniel Bolnick of the University of Texas, Austin, told the newspaper, "I'm an evolutionary biologist, and I and many others simply feel that good evolution education is key to understanding biology as a whole," and his colleague David Hillis added that the Comer controversy represented "an enormous black eye in terms of our competitiveness and ability to attract researchers and technologies." The letter was signed by biologists from across Texas, at both public and private universities.

Alan I Leshner, the chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, drove the message home, writing in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (2007 Dec 11):

As Texas prepares to reconsider what youngsters statewide should know about science, the forced ouster of science curriculum director Chris Comer of the Texas Education Agency, apparently for standing up for the integrity of science education, stands as both shocking and sad. Even more disturbing, perhaps, is the official explanation for it. ... Should anyone in charge of science curriculum be expected to remain neutral regarding efforts to insert religious viewpoints into science classrooms? The answer is 'no.' ... If today's students are to thrive, education leaders cannot pick and choose which scientific facts they want to accept.

A common theme in the coverage of the Comer controversy is that it foreshadows a likely clash over the place of evolution in the science portion of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), the state science standards that determine both what is taught in Texas's public school science classrooms and the content of the biology textbooks approved for use in the state. The Dallas Morning News (2007 Dec 13) summarized, "The resignation of the state's science curriculum director last month has signaled the beginning of what is shaping up to be a contentious and politically charged revision of the science curriculum, set to begin in earnest in January. ... in disciplinary paperwork [officials at the TEA] stressed that she needed to remain neutral in what was becoming a tense period leading up to the first review of the science curriculum in a decade."

In 2003, there were concerted, if ultimately unsuccessful, attempts to misuse the TEKS to compromise the treatment of evolution in the textbooks then under consideration (see RNCSE 2003 Sep–Dec; 23 [5–6]: 4–7), and it is expected that such attempts will recur — especially since the new president of the board, Don McLeroy, is himself a vocal creationist (see RNCSE 2007 May–Aug 2007; 27 [3–4]: 6–9).

Although creationists in Texas, including McLeroy, have disavowed any intention of trying to include creationism in the TEKS, there are clear signs that they will press to include language attempting to instill scientifically unwarranted doubts about evolution. Mark Ramsey, representing a group styling itself Texans for Better Science Education, was characterized, for example, as wanting "weaknesses in evolution" to be taught. (Ramsey is also associated with the Greater Houston Creation Association, as Texas Citizens for Science reported.) NCSE's executive director Eugenie C Scott told the Dallas Morning News (2007 Dec 13), "It all boils down to the idea that to counter evolution you teach students that evolution is crummy science in the hopes that students will reject it ... It's a way of getting creationism in without the 'C' word."

For her part, Comer told the Morning News, "Any science teacher worth [her] salt that has any background in biology will tell you there is no controversy" over the scientific status of evolution. That, she said, was her approach during her tenure at the TEA, where she frequently responded to questions about evolution education in Texas: "We have teachers afraid to teach it, parents who don't want it taught and parents who do want it taught. It comes from all different angles." She added, "For all the years I was there, I would always say the teaching of evolution is part of our science curriculum. It's not just a good idea; it's the law." But now she is not optimistic about the future of science education in Texas, lamenting, "The way things are being done these days I don't think rational minds have a chance."

About the Author(s): 

Glenn Branch
NCSE
PO Box 9477
Berkeley CA 94709-0477
branch@ncseweb.org